To better understand how to maximize fat absorption in infants and combat obesity in adults, Mark E. Lowe, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, has received a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Diseases to study the molecular process of fat absorption in mice.
“The main goal of our research is to understand how fats are digested,” Lowe said. “We hope that this knowledge will lead to novel therapies that could increase fat absorption in infants and decrease obesity in adults.”
Lowe suspects that a protein called enterostatin has the potential to revolutionize adult weight management. Studies have shown that enterostatin can decrease the desire for fatty foods in mice and trigger weight loss.
For instance, mice naturally tend to choose high-fat meals over low-fat ones. However, when treated with increased amounts of enterostatin, mice opt for low-fat meals and eat less than non-treated mice. There is also evidence that enterostatin might adjust the weight the body naturally maintains.
“That’s one of the things that makes it very difficult to lose weight,” Lowe said. “Most of the time when you go on a diet, you lose weight, but when you go back to your regular eating patterns, the weight comes back because that’s how heavy your body wants to be. We think enterostatin might play a role in the regulation of that set point.”
With this grant, Lowe will investigate the effects of enterostatin on newborn and adult mice to determine how the protein regulates body weight and whether it is necessary for survival. If found to be a safe and effective weight-loss aid, enterostatin could eventually be administered orally as a treatment for human obesity.
While many adults wrestle to decrease the amount of fat in their diets, infants struggle for access to as much fat as possible because babies rely heavily on fats to provide essential building blocks for their developing nervous system and growing tissues.
In order for absorption to occur, enzymes called lipases must first break down ingested fats into smaller pieces. Pancreatic triglyceride lipase, the most active lipase in children and adults, does not function in newborns.
Lowe aims to determine which lipases are responsible for breaking down fats in infants, which may lead to the development of better infant formulas.
“A better understanding of how enterostatin functions in infants may also very well lead to a new way of combating adult obesity,” Lowe said.